The push for inclusive or “diverse” books has swept the YA and kitlit publishing worlds over the past few years. Bloggers will discuss what blogging inclusively means and how they can blog inclusively, as well as discuss what has or hasn’t worked for them in the past.
I went into this panel more or less certain that I would learn a lot. For any who don’t know me I’m an able cis-female, heterosexual, nominally Catholic (but really agnostic), middle class white chick. Granted I have my issues (my abnormal social anxiety, POF and sometimes debilitating anemia) which sometimes make it harder for me, but on the balance I am firmly in the privileged category of life. As such I’ve never had problems finding characters I can identify with on a physical, religious or even personal interest level. Hell nowadays I can also find characters with my name (Alexandra or Lexie!) pretty easily.
Camryn urged people to acknowledge they have privilege and that it means there are things you can do that she can’t as easily [as a POC], so it’s important to be mindful of that fact. She recently received a message from her agent that she shouldn’t blog/tweet about a certain topic (an essay about how being black doesn’t mean you can’t be angry nor should you be punished for that, “A Heavy Load”), the agent feeling it was sending the wrong message.
Zoraida asked the panel group why they would continue to blog despite the difficulties they (and others) have faced. Michael remarked that he wouldn’t be able to not write. It stresses him out, but he loves it as much as he hates it. The others laughed and agreed with Zoraida commenting that it’s the “best worst relationship of your life” as well as being emotionally abusive at times.
Camryn said that it’s the only place she feels she is heard and can get her anger out. She related a story about a time when she got into a yelling match with a girl at her school about police brutality and how the other students and teacher just stared at her blankly. As a blogger she feels people hear and see her now, but she doesn’t believe it really sticks with them at times. Kaye simply said she’s incredibly stubborn…but more specifically she feels she has to write for the young girl she was and all the girls who come after her.
Why did they become bloggers? Kaye became a blogger thanks to her best friend and Camryn, who blogs for The Huffington Post and was a Time for Kids reporter, enjoyed seeing her words in print so she kept at it. Michael meanwhile started right as he entered 8th grade so that he could connect with other teen writers. He started the blog Teens Can Write, Too! to advocate for teen writers in a positive way. Camryn interjected that when she was first starting to write she looked up helpful sites on Google. The first site said basically “SOL you’ll be miserable so why bother”, but the second site was Michael’s and she was inspired…then immediately bummed that he stopped blogging.
Zoraida recalled how at 17 the only information she could find about writing was at Writer’s Marketplace and it was all so overwhelming. She admires the young writers who are speaking up about what they believe in and advocate against they feel is wrong and needs to be changed.
As for their blogging now Michael mostly blogs at B&N Teen Blog making thematic lists while Cam and Kaye write essays on topics they feel are important (or just because). When asked if they noticed a lack of diversity in publishing before or after they began blogging, the three had some interesting answers.
Kaye said it was a slow realization because we are so acclimated to the culture. It didn’t occur to her that it was normal to want to see herself in the books she read. Camryn however wasn’t bothered until she began writing her books and was querying and wondered constantly if she should censor herself or maybe write about a white girl instead.
For Michael it was a two part slow realization. As an able white person he was mostly blind to certain issues. He saw a discussion on twitter and began to realize “wait a second, this is a problem”. Then in regards to queer books he had no concept that it was a thing that existed. Going to the library or bookstore he didn’t think to look for them, so while they likely existed he didn’t seek them out in specific.
When she began querying Zoraida would receive rejections that would be along the lines of “This sounds great, but we already have a Latina book” and Camryn received a rejection once that stated “her [black] MC was being too mean to the white girls”. They both believed that due to how important diverse inclusion has been that editors and agents would be more open, but they obviously aren’t so we need to keep pushing. We need to get to the point where writers don’t have to censor themselves for fear of being rejected because their book is too diverse and the publisher already has “that big black book”.
Zoraida says it’s not just about diversity anymore, but about uplifting Own voices. #OwnVoices began when author Corrine Douglas made this one request “Glad important discussions are being had. Would love to be able to walk away with book recommendations. How about a hashtag? #ownvoices, to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” Meaning that the author and the main character should identify within the same “marginalized” group. Puerto Rican heroine should be written by a Puerto Rican author. They don’t have to match exactly (the heroine could be a lesbian and the author is male for instance), but they need to match in some important way.
Zoraida urged that we need to uplift and amplify such voices within and without the community. In June the hashtag “OnYourOwn” was born to give encouragement to others who may feel alone or as if their voice doesn’t matter. It’s full of inspirational words and advice saying “We are here. We want to help. You’re not alone.” Kaye, who had participated, said that afterwards she received private messages from younger bloggers who were nervous because of the recent events and the Islamophobia (in specific) they fear if they were to speak up or blog.
This started a round of how the panelists deal with the negativity that’s directed at them. Kaye says it’s not fun or easy to be the one who is always countering the negative comments she sees/receives and would really like better diversity education.
Michael cautioned there’s a trend to get “perfect representation”, especially within the LGBTQIAP+ community, but there is no “right” way to represent someone. Stereotypes exist and sometimes real people are those stereotypes so to write them that way is not being “offensive”, but being true to that particular person. Write it well, write it truthfully and it will still matter.
Zoraida “Diversity isn’t a monomyth”. There is no one true “gay” or “trans” or “Latina” character to be written just like there isn’t one true way to live your life.
Camryn spoke about how you can write characters who are different from yourself, just do the research. She truly doesn’t understand the amount of privilege a person must feel or have to say “this is how a black person lives” if they’re a) not black themselves (how could they have lived the “black experience” then?) and b) didn’t bother to do the research. People want to connect with characters, they need to be able to in fact, so research (for any reason) is always the answer.
A change of topic and Zoraida asked how they felt their blogging has changed from their first post to their most recent. Camryn feels she’s gotten angrier. She used to censor herself or say “This is my opinion, but you may have a different one and that’s okay”, but now she’s just like “I don’t care about your feelings”. Zoraida said she shouldn’t have to feel apologetic for being honest and Camryn said she’s done apologizing for how she really feels.
Michael doesn’t remember his first post exactly, only that it was BAD and he rewrote it 6 times. He sometimes looks at his early posts and cringes actually. He feels he’s more confident in his words and his ability to speak his mind, plus as he’s become more aware of his privilege he understands how his experiences are different and how to respect other spaces and his own limits.
Kaye said she knows she’s improved because she began blogging in her teens and is now in her 20s. She also feels more confident in her words.
When asked about their next steps they all looked a bit bewildered and uncertain. Kaye wants to get more words and books out there…also graduating (from college) would be nice. Camryn wants to sell a book…maybe? She feels nervous about doing so, as she isn’t a fan of being the center of attention for events. If she could do so, but remain in her room for the rest of the time, she’d be happy. Michael has no idea and is just going to wing it. He freely admits he’s the world’s slowest fiction writer (I don’t know George RR Martin may own that mantle), but he does want to be known one because of his writing.
During the open Q&A they were asked for advice to other young writers and bloggers out there. Kaye says it’s surreal to be asked for advice because she used to believe her voice wasn’t really that important. Hang in there, one day things will come together for you.
Camryn suggests finding that one person who believes you (and your words) are really important. Michael advises that with writing/blogging there are periods where it’s hard and periods where it’s easy. During the hard times, getting discouraged can be easy, but remember it’s only temporary.
What about easing parents into what you do? They all agreed that it’s easy and understandable as to why parents would be scared or worried. The world is full of people who aren’t nice, who don’t care how old you are or how right your message is. It’s a parent’s job to worry. Sit them down and have a conversation. Discuss why you are tweeting about such controversial issues or why you feel it’s important to blog about topics that make others uncomfortable. Make the discussion about why it’s important to you personally.
What do you wish you saw more of from the privileged members of the community? Zoraida cautions you shouldn’t just go on the defensive quickly. Uplift and amplify Own Voices who are discussing the issues. Kaye says to take a moment and digest what you are reading/seeing and what people are asking you to do. Don’t judge/jump to conclusions immediately, find what fits you best so you can help the conversation, not negatively impact it.
Diversity in blogging/books in general? Zoraida wants us to think about the books we are promoting/reading. Why aren’t we reading certain books? Is it because the book is about someone of a different race/sexuality? If the book was about a white person in the same situation, would you read it? Think of the books outside of the labels. She doesn’t want to force anyone into it however. You should approach it willingly and with an open mind, otherwise it’s hurtful to everyone.
Equally authors shouldn’t just add diversity for diversity’s sake. She’s known authors who were told to add more diverse characters, but told them not to. We’re beyond the point where bad representation is better then no representation. She’d prefer there not be any diverse characters if the author is sledge hammering them in without any regard to who they represent. Michael added that when you are making your own world, really think about the world’s dynamics. How is racism handled in that world? Are the rules the same as in the real world? Does that make sense? You’re building this world
Michael suggests you don’t just look at diverse books in a vacuum. Take a step back and look at the larger picture when viewing titles and summaries. Camryn rolled her eyes and sarcastically quipped “we have a black president and Oprah is rich, so clearly racism is over”.
There are many who only want to talk about the good things, but discourse on the bad things is really important. Zoraida said that it takes a very brave person to not look away when bad things are happening. If you blog about children’s lit, take a look at what you’re reviewing. Do you incorporate/integrate diverse books?
For me this panel helped to illustrate that I’m a) terribly apathetic when it comes to things that don’t directly affect me and b) I can do better. Do I read diverse books? I do. Are they the first books I reach for when I’m browsing? Not particularly no. Unless it’s an author I already love, I hesitate to take a chance unless its fantasy based. To be truthful I also don’t know many authors who fit Own Voice. I’m hoping to change that going forward.
I didn’t attend the other “Blogging Diversely” panel (as it was concurrent to this one) hosted by Kody Keplinger and paneled by Patrice Caldwell, Heidi Heilig and Wendy Xu, but twitter is a magical place and this tweet caught my attention:
— Blogbound (@blogboundcon) July 10, 2016
I think this is important to remember. As Michael said, don’t look at it in a vacuum. The things we say, the things we do and support and talk about all effect the world we live in. You can’t on the one hand advocate diversity then get upset when something you “hold dear” is then “ruined” by that same diversity.
I remember back in 1997 how freaked out people were about Brandy playing Cinderella in the Disney TV movie. Not just that, but the Prince was Filipino, his mother (the Queen) was black, his father white (so biracial couple) and the Fairy Godmother was black as well. Outside of possibly Paolo Montalban (the Prince), every single other person I named was a legitimate, well regarded actor or actress. Who in their right mind wouldn’t cast Whoopi Goldberg (the Queen) or Brandy in a movie back in the 90’s? Victor Garber (the King) was well known and was starring in ABC’s Alias at the time. And WHITNEY HOUSTON AS THE FAIRY GODMOTHER. And yet the amount of dismay, hate and negativity I heard when talking to my classmates at the time and on the AOL Boards was disheartening.
The most common reason? “Cinderella isn’t black.” Cinderella my friends is a fairy tale, based on numerous different white European countries’ tales that were maybe possibly based on some real life events, but likely just a story told to kids to get them to behave. Cinderella was compiled and rewritten by two other white European males who were writing the book specifically for other white Europeans in a time when “racism” wasn’t a word and “race” was basically “You’re not white, rich and European? You don’t matter.” (and before anyone says anything, yes I know that the fairy tale construct appears outside of Europe, but the first one anyone ever thinks of is the blond blue eyed gal of vaguely French environment, thank you Disney).
I’m not wholly without sin in this regard. I have some favorites that my first reaction is “omg what are you even doing right now”, but that’s something I need to work on. Something else I need to work on is being aware about the difference between a positive representation and a negative one. No one is perfect bottom line. We all need to strive harder.